Short Story Renaissance: Carmen Maria Machado & Jeffrey Eugenides

For me, as for many people, reading fiction usually means reading novels. Writers have a tendency to think of short stories as “practice” for longer works; and many readers, I think, associate short stories with either high-brow literary magazines or the mid-century American fiction read in high school literature classes. However, the past few years have seen a kind of rebirth of the short story—walk into any bookstore and you’ll see recent short story collections displayed prominently, and just a few months ago Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” went viral after being published by The New Yorker.

In recent months, I’ve found myself reading more and more short fiction, too. Short story collections, I’ve found, fit the rhythm of my day nicely. I tend to read while commuting, and I can usually finish a story or two on one journey. If you don’t want to commit to a 250-page novel, a short story collection gives you the freedom of reading a story, putting down the book, and then returning to it days or weeks later.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been reading:

Her Body and Other PartiesHer Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

By the time I got my hands on a (signed!) copy of Her Body and Other Parties, I’d been eagerly awaiting the book’s release for several years. The first short story in Her Body and Other Parties, “The Husband Stitch” was originally published in Granta in October 2014, and when I read it, I sent it to my best friend in an email full of exclamation points. The story is beautifully written, haunting, and emotionally astute. Her Body and Other Parties was nominated for a National Book Award, and I’ve seen Machado compared many times to Shirley Jackson, another master of the short story form. I think characterization is, in many ways fitting—like Jackson, Machado uses elements of the supernatural to write about women and their experiences, but Machado’s writing delves much more frankly into sex and sexuality than any of Jackson’s short stories that I’ve read. In many interviews, Machado is asked about her approach to writing about sex, or if she considers her stories erotic. While sex is certainly an important element of many of Machado’s stories, I think it would be tragically reductionist to consider the collection a work of erotica. Machado never presents sex voyeuristically; the sex scenes are sometimes sexy, but they are not there to arouse the readers. Rather, the sex scenes give us a deeper understanding of the characters and their relationships. My current favorite in the collection is “Inventory,” in which a woman’s memories of past lovers give shape to a futuristic story of biological apocalypse. On my first reading of the collection, I found some stories easier to digest and understand than others. Perhaps because I’ve never watched SVU, I found it difficult to make sense of the novella Especially Heinous, which spins a ghost story out of characters and circumstances taken from the show. However, I’m certain that it will reward re-reading, and I’m looking forward to returning to the collection in months and years to come.

Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey EugenidesFresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides

After discovering Jeffrey Eugenides during my sophomore year of college, I read The Marriage Plot, The Virgin Suicides, and Middlesex in a matter of months. I adored The Marriage Plot in particular, and when I picked up Fresh Complaint at the library a few weeks ago, I assumed it too was a novel. In fact, the book is a short story collection. Some were written as recently as 2017; others as early as the mid-1990s. Some of the older short stories feel more than a bit cringe-worthy given changing social mores—”Baster,” in which the narrator secretly swaps his own sperm for the sample his friend intends to use to get pregnant, is one of these. But I was touched by “Complainers,” which charts a friendship between two aging women, one of whom has dementia; and I enjoyed “Airmail,” which gave me a chance to revisit Mitchell Grammaticus, a character from The Marriage Plot, on a beach in Bali. Still, Fresh Complaint left me slightly disappointed; Eugenides might have done better to leave some of his older stories in the drawer.

Also on my list of short story collections to read:

  • Emerald City by Jennifer Egan
  • Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang
  • Difficult Women by Roxanne Gay
  • The Complete Short Stories by Muriel Spark

 

 

End of an Era: Reading the final installment of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels

Elena Ferrante My Brilliant Friend The Story of a New Name Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay The Story of the Lost Child

Last night, I arrived home from work, heated up some leftover takeout curry, and finished The Story of the Lost Child, the fourth and final installment of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. The books follow Ferrante’s narrator Elena and her friend, Lila, from their shared childhood in a poor, Camorra-controlled neighborhood in Naples; into their teens and twenties, when Elena leaves the neighborhood, attends university and establishes herself as a scholar and writer; their thirties and forties, when they are once more living nearby in the neighborhood; and into their fifties and sixties, when their friendship begins to disintegrate.

Ferrante’s narrative accumulates details, gestures, and interpersonal histories in a way that allows her to imbue a pair of shoes or a glance between friends with devastating meaning. Near the end of the first novel, one of the Solara brothers—Lila’s enemy and one of the most powerful figures in the neighborhood—arrive at a wedding reception wearing a certain pair of shoes. I gasped aloud. Without Ferrante saying so, I knew that a terrible betrayal had taken place, and I was stunned by how deftly Ferrante had given me all of the details that I needed to be able to understand what the shoes meant.

One of the things I love about Ferrante’s writing was the way that she captured what it feels like to be simultaneously in your own mind and in a world made up of other people. We all know what it feels like to be half in a conversation and also thinking about something else: how handsome the man you’re talking to is, what your best friend would say if she were here, how secretly uncertain you are of the opinions you’re expressing.

I’ve been reading my way through the series for the last six or seven months, interspersing Ferrante’s novels with other books along the way, and I felt a sense of both completeness and emptiness as I reached the last page of The Story of the Lost Child. In a sense, the process of reading the novels seemed to mark out an era of my own life. Like the narrator Elena, who has furiously written pages and pages of text recounting her friendship with Lila, I couldn’t believe it was over.

Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West—an empathetic, allegorical story of the refugee crisis

Exit West Mohsin HamidI have been eager to get hold of a copy of Mohsin Hamid’s slim and timely novel, Exit West, ever since reading a November review in the London Review of Books, and this past week finally I sat down and read it, devouring the book in three days. I’d previously read The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and I was impressed by how he had created a measured and idiosyncratic voice for his narrator, a man who may—or may not—be a terrorist. Exit West is a very different kind of novel, but it shares with The Reluctant Fundamentalist a slightly abstracted, allegorical sensibility.

The premise of Exit West is simple: in an unnamed city that we can guess is located somewhere in the Middle East, a young man and a young woman meet in a continuing education class and fall in love. Nadia and Saeed listen to music and cook for each other and smoke weed and dream of traveling. When war breaks out and the city is taken over by fundamentalists, they decide they will try to flee the country. This is where an element of the surreal comes into play: Nadia and Saeed have heard a rumor that doors around the city are transforming into portals that lead to other parts of the world. They pay a smuggler who takes them to a dentist’s office. They open a cupboard door, step through, and find themselves on a Greek island. The couple stays in a refugee camp there for a while before finding another door, which leads them to London. Months later, they pass through another door to California. The story of Nadia and Saeed’s journey and their relationship is interspersed with vignettes about other migrants in other places.

This conceit allows Hamid to explore the idea of migration without actually describing the arduous process of crossing borders. It feels almost impossible not to read the story as a commentary on the current refugee crisis, and the portals themselves suggest that borders, as delineated by the state, are arbitrary and impossible to enforce. In Exit West, the world remakes itself to allow migration to take place; like it or not, people always have, and always will, move from place to place. In London, Nadia and Saeed witness the fury of UKIP-esque nativists, but the locals eventually realize that they must find a way to live alongside the migrants who have come to their city.

Late in the novel, Hamid writes of a woman who has lived all her life in one house, and who nonetheless finds that much of the world around her seems foreign. “We are all migrants through time,” he writes, and I see meaning in Hamid’s choice to use the word migration throughout the novel rather than immigration or emigration. In Exit West, migration isn’t always a matter of where you are leaving from or going to. By the time Nadia and Saeed leave the city where they grew up, it must seem to them in many ways unrecognizable. Even if we ourselves don’t move, places will remake themselves about us.

Visiting the Library

For the first time since graduating from college, I have a library card once again, and for the past few weeks, I’ve been relishing my visits to my local library here in London.

Growing up, one of the few reasons I went “downtown” was to visit the library. In the summer, the library offered an escape from slow days at home with nothing to do. I would spend hours combing my way through the stacks in the Young Adult and Fiction sections, and then lug home enormous tote bags full of books, which I kept in a stack beside my bed until I had to return them.

Recently, I’ve been reliving this routine: I work from home most days, so a trip to the library is an escape from freelancer cabin-fever. Unlike getting a cup of coffee, it costs exactly nothing, and since the library is walking distance from my flat, it’s also a chance to stretch my legs. But best of all, I get to bring home a glorious stack of books.

This week’s picks, in the order that they have been haphazardly stacked on my bookshelf:

  • Fresh Complaint, by Jeffery Eugenides
  • How to Eat by Nigella Lawson
  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
  • My Cat Yugolavia by Pajtim Statovci
  • The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante
  • A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

I won’t get through all of these books this week. I’ll renew some, browse some and return some. I think part of what I love about libraries is this sense of abundance—you can borrow any book on the shelves, and there are more books on the shelves than you’ll likely ever read. Libraries are one of the best public resources we have, and I can hardly believe that I went so long without visiting one.

In the spirit of celebrating libraries and all that they offer, I want to close by sharing an iconic (in my mind) clip from the children’s tv show, Arthur. If you are moved to do so, feel free to join me in chanting the refrain.

 

 

Reading the Iranian Revolution

House of the MosquePersepolis

Last month, I found myself reading two very different literary takes on twentieth-century Iranian history: Kader Abdolah’s semi-autobiographical novel The House of the Mosque and Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir Persepolis. My book club had chosen The House of the Mosque as January’s discussion book, and so when I saw a copy of Persepolis at a local charity shop, I bought it—it would be interesting, I thought to read two books that follow the turmoil of Iranian politics through the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. This was a period that I knew little about before reading the two books, and even now I’d say that my understanding of Iranian history and politics during this era is rather hazy. Both books use political events as a backdrop for other stories, and in The House of the Mosque, I found it at times challenging to tell how much of the plot was historical and how much was imagined.

The House of the Mosque follows the rising and falling fortunes of the occupants of a house attached to a mosque in Senejan. Aqa Jaan, the patriarch of the family is a traditionalist, but not a fundamentalist, and we see him and other members of the family examining their relationship to Islam, first amid the Shah’s push for Westernization, and then under Ayatollah Khomeini’s religious regime. While many members of my book club enjoyed the novel’s atmospheric vignettes, I found myself frustrated by how characters dropped in and out of the meandering plot, often without a clear purpose. I was also unimpressed by the characterization of most of the women in the novel—Abdolah spends a lot of time depicting various women acquiescing to their lovers, but doesn’t tell us much about the women’s motivations for the actions outside of the bedroom (a plot line in which one woman becomes a brutal interrogator for the secret police is barely explained).

Persepolis, on the other hand, is primarily a coming-of-age story, and its plot follows Satrapi’s life from her childhood to her early twenties. Like The House of the MosquePersepolis shows characters evaluating their religious and political beliefs, but unlike most of the characters in Abdolah’s novel, Marjane and her family are radical leftists, and the graphic memoir is full of discussions of Marxist theory. When Marjane is eventually sent away to school in Austria, she falls in with a crowd of anarchists, thinking they’ll understand and respect her experiences in Iran. She is disappointed to find that her new friends are more interested in getting high than talking politics—for them, Marxism and anarchism are simply a cool shorthand for punk culture.

Though I decidedly preferred Persepolis to The House of the Mosque, I am glad that I read them in tandem. The two books refer to many of the same historical events, and it was informative to glimpse those events through the eyes of two sets of characters with very different values. I also left both books with a renewed sense of curiosity about Iranian history, and I was reminded of how, as a teen, reading historical fiction sparked my interest in studying history more formally. It’s always a good sign, I think, when you close a book feeling eager to learn more.

Things to read, watch, and listen to

baby-driver

I spent the weekend trying to recover from the kind of cold that makes you not want to do anything except lie on the sofa. Sure, I’m technically well enough to do the things I’m meant to be doing: editing for freelance clients, applying for jobs, attending Christmas parties and networking events, apartment-hunting, and making meals for myself, but with a cold, all of these things are harder than they ordinarily would be, and I’ve been letting those job application deadlines slip by, choosing instead to swaddle myself in my beloved crocheted blanket. The good news is that this is an ideal place from which to consume media—so here’s a taste of what I’ve been reading, watching, and listening to:

  • Season 1 of The Crown—yes, I know that Season 2 premiered this week, but I’m still back in Season 1, which I began this time last year, when I stayed home from work with a back injury. I can’t quite decide if I like The Crown — do Margaret and Elizabeth have to be so nasty to each other? and why is everyone so riled up about divorcées? — but it’s so well done that I just keep watching.
  • Cat Person—I woke up yesterday morning to see that the New Yorker short story had gone viral in the US while I was asleep in London. Reading the story made me think about conversations I’d had with friends in college about their dating lives—there’s been a lot of talk about how timely the story is, and I agree that this is true. But I was most impressed by how Kristen Roupenian describes Margot’s thought process, how she assesses potential dangers, risks—and her own shifting desires.
  • Baby Driver—several friends raved about this film to me when it first came out, and last night, I finally got around to renting it on Amazon. With the hindsight of the last few months, Kevin Spacey’s presence as a mastermind of heists is discomfiting, but Baby Driver is worth the watch for the chase sequences, the soundtrack, Ansel Elgort’s baby-faced sincerity, and Jon Hamm as a vengeance-crazed baddie. It’s a lot of fun.

 

History, memory, and imagination blur in Lincoln in the Bardo

History, imagination, and memory are not so far apart – history is largely remembered, and memory can do funny things: we invent, we mythologize. This is often a difficult admission for historians, for whom it would be tidier to say that history is entirely a pursuit to determine The Historical Truth—but the deeper you go in history, the harder it is to decide on what is objective. This is disconcerting, but most people agree that the answer is not to throw out the notion of truth altogether. Instead, historians think about how subjectivity shapes the way we record, discuss, and remember the past.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about history and memory this week, as I’m midway through George Saunders’ Booker-winning Lincoln in the Bardo, which I bought in a Waterstones on the way home from a dinner party, after a few glasses of wine had softened my usual reluctance to pay for a shiny new hardback edition. I had heard of the book of course—I knew it was about Lincoln and his son’s death, that it was good, great, brilliant—but I somehow hadn’t heard anything about its structure.

I’ll tell you now: this Lincoln in the Bardo is all about structure, and I’m a sucker for novels that break with traditional narrative conventions. Saunders’ central conceit idea is this: some chapters are made up of dialogue between ghosts in the graveyard where Willie Lincoln, the president’s son, is buried, and others are a collage of historical sources, block quotes of text that look not unlike the notes I used to prepare when writing my history essays in college. I was intrigued, but not totally convinced that this structure was necessary—and I reached chapter five:

Lincoln in the Bardo V

 

I was struck by the  Saunders’ juxtaposition of these conflicting accounts: the effect is not to make us question the narrators’ honesty, or to ask us to infer whether there was indeed a full moon that night, but to show us the unreliability of memory. How much of what we know about our life is real, Sauders asks, and how much is imagined?

A few days later, I stumbled across  Marina Warner’s “Diary” for the Nov 16 issue of the London Review of Books, which argues that memory and imagination are not so far apart:

“It isn’t just saints and visionaries who have dreams and relate them as if they were real events—in a literary sense, as well as a psychological sense, they are real events. Recent findings in the field of cognitive studies tend to show the ways in which thought is interwoven with reality. Memoria and fantasia used to be considered distinct faculties and were assigned to separate chambers of the mind, but it seems the same synapses fire whether you are remembering something that happened to you, recalling something you saw on the news, or inventing it from scratch. The speculative mind generates experience—imagined experience.”

Warner’s essay references Augustine, Proust, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Nicole Krauss—but as soon as I read this paragraph, I thought of Lincoln in the Bardo. Saunders’ bricolage of historical texts accomplishes captures the phenomenon of invented memory and unreliable history. We know that not all of the voices in Lincoln in the Bardo are speaking the truth; and yet none of them are lying.